The same week in which we saw some predominantly gloomy circulation figures (combined with new ways of reporting readership for Fairfax broadsheets), we also saw the launch one of the highest-profile new kids on the block in new media — the much anticipated online only Global Mail.
This is Australia’s richest example of philanthropically-funded journalism so far, with a mission to deliver “original, fearless, independent journalism”. Yet another example of how much energy there is outside the gloom of mainstream media.
The Global Mail, funded by wotif.com founder Graeme Wood and edited by award-winning ABC journalist Monica Attard, has already had plenty of publicity. It is not like the smell-of-an-oily operations, this New Kid on the Block series has covered so far. Nor is it like other philanthropic efforts, such as New Matilda, which constantly have the hat out looking for cash to survive.
The Global Mail has comparatively big money behind it — $15 million in all, which Attard reckons will buy it about five years of operations.
It’s about long reads, of the kind one once found in the Saturday papers and in quality magazines. It does not aim to be “on the news” but close behind with “more considered, and less breathless” coverage. “We seek out and listen to the voices not always heard, and examine the statements of those who speak the loudest and most often. And we investigate where investigation is the only way to get to the truth,” says the blurb.
To this end, there are 23 staff on the payroll, including a three-person investigative unit. The staff list includes some of Attard’s former high-profile ABC colleagues, and there are overseas reporters as well.
Reviewing new publications of any kind is always a bit of a chancy occupation. No matter how much preparation there has been, and no matter how many dummy editions have been done behind the scenes, new mastheads are rather like pancakes — the first few never come out quite right. It takes a while to get the pan nice and hot and the batter flowing smoothly.
So it is with The Global Mail. There were technical problems, with the site crashing soon after launch under the weight of curiosity. At the time of writing, the site crashed on my iPad, and on other people’s as well, judging from the Twitter traffic.
There are irritating things about the site. It scrolls horizontally, which I quite like, but the home page has a distracting Twitter feed that travels fast enough to draw the eye, yet too fast to be read properly.
Leaving that aside (and all such problems are eminently fixable), what about the content?
First, it is unquestionably Australian in sensibility, but not at all parochial. The first week has included investigations into the Australian health system but also pieces on the lack of results so far from the International Criminal Court and the deportation of Cambodian refugees from the US. Local material includes leisurely and historically informed reflections on the role of the new speaker of federal parliament, Peter Slipper .
The emphasis is on long reads — some of them very long indeed. There is also a genuine investigative effort, with two pieces branded “investigative” in the first week — one into the inadequacies of the healthcare register, and the second into reasons behind the surge in Australian energy bills. Both are solid and worthwhile pieces of work, without shattering the Earth.
And indeed for the first week, most of the content was of the worthy but not rock-your-socks kind. But remember the pancakes metaphor.
The length of the articles means that this is a sit-back rather than a lean-forward reading experience, which makes it odd that so far there is no iPad app, and that the site is so clunky on tablets. Tablets are, surely, the natural medium for reads of this length.
Some of the pieces seem to me to be long for length’s sake. A few of the big name correspondents need a firmer subedit.
The Global Mail is also not very interactive. There is the usual comments box at the end, and the Twitter presence for the masthead and the individual reporters, yet there is no feeling of the writers being ready and willing to talk to the audience.
The feel of the site is that the editorial team has a clear idea of what it wants to do, and doesn’t feel the need to reach out, consult or interact all that much. Perhaps all that philanthropic money is a double-sided coin — it removes the need to compromise, which is good. On the other hand, it removes the discipline of compromise — which may be not so good.
Yet overwhelmingly The Global Mail is to be welcomed, and is a good thing for readers hungry for material of substance. It has already published a considerable amount of material of a kind you would struggle to find elsewhere. Yes, international news can be read online from international mastheads, but not written with Australian concerns and sensibilities in mind.Sniping and critiquing is easy, but nobody can know how much effort it takes to first gather the funding for a venture of this kind, and then get it to launch.
And the business model? There isn’t one. There are no advertisers. “Our audience is our only agenda,” the promos declare, and Attard (true to her ABC roots) has said she believes advertising “can be quite corruptive”.
Nor is there a cover price at the moment, although Attard has said the team has not decided yet whether to charge for the forthcoming iPad app version. At the moment, The Global Mail seems to be allowing its readers to expect this kind of high-quality content for free — and the world’s mainstream publishers have declared that a mistake.
So what of the future? Overseas high-quality philanthropic journalism is somewhat better established. The US’s Propublica is the best-known example, with an annual budget of about $10 million and a mission of investigative reporting (whereas The Global Mail is predominately about features).
There are many other US examples, many established five to six years ago when the US lost huge amounts of reporting capacity in the mainstream media over about an 18-month period, stimulating a sense of civic emergency in philanthropists.
But the US example suggests that most philanthropists don’t want to BE the media. They want to address a crisis, or seed the means to tackle a problem. When I was in the US this time last year, the philanthropically-funded news organisations I spoke to said that five years on, their donors were pressuring them to diversify the sources of their funding.
Responses were various. Some (including ProPublica) were taking advertising — the risk being that once you have ads, you have pressure for eyeballs and constantly updated content — potentially diverting you from your initial aim of long-form investigative journalism.
Some were hiring out their staff to conduct training courses, or to conduct investigations on behalf of NGOs or corporate clients, with obvious implications for independence. And some were becoming more and more like regular media — a reinvention, perhaps, and not necessarily a bad thing.
At the same time, some US new media start-ups that began with the unashamed aim of making a profit are now managing to do long-form and even investigative journalism.
Take a particular favourite of mine, the modest anewscafe in the northern Californian town of Redding. It was founded by popular columnist Doni Chamberlain after she was made redundant from the town’s newspaper. It has a donations button on its site, but relies mainly on advertising. It is now employing reporters, paying contributors and able to do this kind of six-part investigation into the city’s homelessness problem. Yes, it is parochial, but in a good way.
So is philanthropic journalism sustainable long term, or is its main contribution as a bridge to whatever comes next? Perhaps five years will be enough for The Global Mail to find answers to these questions. It would be nice to think so. In the meantime, as the pan heats up and the pancakes start flipping, The Global Mail deserves our good wishes.